Full of surprises

Villa Donata serves short ribs pugliese with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, spinach and tomatoes.

Villa Donata serves short ribs pugliese with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, spinach and tomatoes.

Photo/Allison Young

For more information, visit villadonatos.com.

Villa Donato has a split personality. A large brunch menu features plenty of American-style sweet and savory breakfast options along with soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches and pasta. But once the clock strikes 5, the upscale diner turns into a white-linen, Italian fine dining room with charm to spare.

Former home to earlier eateries, the newest residents have done a great job making the space their own. With indoor seating for perhaps 30 and at least that many seats on the patio, the remodel is stylish and inviting. A basket of warm, sliced Italian bread with a tasty, chewy crust was served as we were seated—a good omen for the meal to come.

Seafood is well represented throughout the menu. Though tempted by appetizers of clams, mussels and scampi, a little voice on my shoulder whispered, “Calamari? Of course we’re ordering calamari.” This simple starter can reveal a lot about a kitchen, so I tend to order it with some frequency. The batter was light and crispy, and held up well when dunked in a very enjoyable red pepper marinara sauce ($10). The squid was expertly tender and—combined with that spicy sauce—ranks among the best I’ve been served. Extra credit for a huge portion that could easily serve four.

Speaking of portions, my wife’s “cup” of minestrone was actually a small bowl ($2.50). Though there’s no single recipe for this Italian classic, most include some kind of bean. It’s not uncommon to include more than one variety of bean, as well as pasta or rice. This bowl contained plenty of veggies in a not-overpowering broth and a dollop of mozzarella, but no beans. Not bad, just surprising.

Better was a side of meatballs that were delicious and the best deal of the night. For $6, you get a soup plate full of marinara and four large balls. The gravy had rich tomato flavor without being too sweet, and the meat was both well-seasoned and texturally perfect. If we hadn’t ordered entrees, I’d have asked for more bread to sop up that yummy sauce. I think a lunch visit for a meatball sub is definitely in our future.

I’m a fan of chefs stretching the boundaries with innovations in technique and ingredients, but it can be refreshing to see a menu focused on classic dishes at an elevated level of “homestyle” cooking. Based on the quality of the mild and spicy marinaras, we each decided to order truly classic entrees that are all about the sauce. My veal picatta ($25) was tender, served coated in sauce that was right on target. It was piquant without being too sharp, thickened just enough to stick to the meat and complement the side of al dente asparagus spears.

When in doubt, chicken marsala is my wife’s go-to favorite ($18). Here, the choice of ingredients really stood out compared to the garden variety dish served at chain restaurants. Instead of very sweet marsala wine with thick-cut white mushrooms, thinly-sliced porcini caps and what seemed a drier variant of marsala were combined for subtle yet striking results. The wine was not lost, but the mushroom slices imparted the strongest note and practically melted on the tongue. As with the calamari and veal, the chicken was tender and cooked just right.

Normally I wouldn’t order dessert after a meal this large, but I talked my wife into splitting a tiramisu ($6). It was good, but perhaps not the best. The ladyfingers were so strongly soaked in espresso they were falling apart on the fork, and they certainly didn’t skimp on the booze. The presentation was very pretty, though.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of our meal was how affordable it turned out to be. Great Italian food and service enjoyed amongst pleasant surroundings without blowing your budget? Fuggedaboudit!